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  • Yosef H. Yerushalmi's Zakhor—Some Observations
  • Moshe Idel, Max Cooper Professor Jewish Thought

I: "The Faith of the Fallen Jews"

The following remarks represent some amateurish reflections concerning some of the observations and assumptions found in Yosef H. Yerushalmi's Zakhor. They concern only quite a small part of this rich and thoughtful book, especially the initial pages and its final part. In this framework only two topics in the book will be addressed: the assumption that history is the faith of the fallen Jews, and then the stark distinction that Yerushalmi claims exists between premodern traditional Judaism and modern Jews' inclination toward history. Consequently, these forms of Judaism may hardly communicate. An attempt will be made to exemplify the complexity of the relationship between the two forms of Judaism.

The faith in history by the "fallen," an expression that reflects Yerushalmi's ironic understanding of modern interest in history,1 itself has a small history. According to a certain testimony, Gershom Scholem once remarked that in his classes at the Hebrew University he taught not reason but history.2 His shift from the earlier reliance on the paramount Enlightenment value—reason—to historical modernism is, to follow Reinhold Niebuhr's diagnosis, "not so much confidence in reason as faith in history. The conception of a redemptive history informs most diverse forms of modern culture."3 In lieu of the image of the divine redeemer, it is now history, in its Hegelian form, that offers the redemptive experience. Faith in history, or in historical research, dislocated, at least to a certain extent, traditional faith in a personal deity and worked with the [End Page 491] assumption that meaning or, according to another formulations, identities are hidden in or dramatically shaped by events that constitute the history of a nation or a person. For a skeptical observer, however, the two forms of faith are based on strong though rarely explicated hypotheses, which can hardly be proven. From this point of view, they are equal.

How and why did this new "faith" emerge in Judaism? The new status attained by Jewish history in the general economy of modern Judaism represents a major jump; it succeeded in establishing itself as a main, if not dominant, dimension of identity for many modern Jews. This is part of a profound process of self-definition emerging in rapidly changing circumstances, in which the recent history of the Jews has been dramatically accelerated.4 The more dramatic changes are well known: the Holocaust, the shift from the largest concentration of Jews in Europe to Asia and North America, the establishment of the state of Israel and the massive emigration that liquidated whole communities (some of which existed for millennia), and the emergence of the American center of Judaism—in a word, new forms of struggle for personal, national, and cultural survival. These struggles were coupled with complex attempts at redefinition, Zionist, and more recent trends, mainly American, to search for an identity that does not depend on earlier views of the Diaspora or on a territorial solution of the exilic condition. Such dramatic turns are unknown even in the long and tortuous Jewish history prior and represent unparalleled accelerations of events. They were major ruptures that occasioned a search for antecedents, and thus the protagonists of these events turned to history for examples. This turn is, psychologically speaking, a natural one. People try, especially in cases of dramatic changes and crises, to situate themselves in a wider framework in order to understand their personal or communal vicissitudes, some of which are quite unexpected. According to such a view, history as an academic profession is not essential, and the resort to examples from the past reflects crises or turning points, related to occasional moments of self-understanding, though imposed mainly by external forces.

Less dramatic, though still very important from the point of view of the ascent of history, and of what I call "the historical Jew," is another development, characteristic of only a small part of Jewish communities, mainly in Central and Western Europe: a gradual opening of some Jews and Christians toward more religiously neutral forms of society, as part [End Page 492] of a...


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pp. 491-501
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